A 'crisis' led architect-turned-sculptor Tim Prentice to examine air currents through art

Architect-turned-sculptor Tim Prentice’s work is moving into the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield on March 29 for a year-long stint in a two-part exhibition of his kinetic sculptures titled “Tim Prentice: After the Mobile.”

Fascinated all his life by wind and air currents, Prentice (born in 1930) was a navigator in the U.S. Navy, and also sailed for recreation up and down the Eastern seaboard. This understanding of how wind operates helps him create striking, wind-driven sculptures that are delicately balanced yet intriguingly complex. Each piece is unique and modifies its actual or implied movement, depending on where it is sited. They rotate, shimmer and vibrate right in front of your eyes.

“If you made a certain piece and put in such-and-such space, there would be air currents in that space that would establish the final look of the piece, but you could take that same piece and put it in another space and it would behave differently, because the air is different and the air is the boss,” Prentice said.

The first part of the exhibition runs inside the museum from March 29 through Oct. 4 and will segue into an outdoor installation from Sept. 19 through April 24, 2022 in the sculpture galleries. In total, there will be 20 indoor works, five outdoor works, and a video portrait of the artist. For Prentice, who lives in West Cornwall, it’s his first solo museum exhibition since 1999.

The title of the exhibition pays homage to Alexander Calder’s famous mobiles, which was just one genre among an amazing body of work that also included two-dimensional art and jewelry. While Calder’s work used the term “mobile,” the term “kinetic sculpture” from it, remaining a relatively small field in fine art. Still, kinetic sculpture practitioners like Prentice, George Rickey, Naum Gabo and Victor Vaserly have carved out artistic paths for themselves.

Describing how he turned from a successful career as an architect in New York City to sculpting, Prentice said he admired Calder and others but knew he had something unique to say. “I felt in spite of how imaginative and fulfilling their careers were, I suspected that there was still turf out there I could claim so I set out to look for it,” he said.

Prentice was intrigued by Calder’s work in particular because he not only designed art objects but made them with his own hands, whereas as an architect, he spent his days drawing things for others to build. “It was also that male midlife crisis ... This thing of kinetic sculpture got the better of me, and I wanted to get my mitts onto something,” he said. “That’s the challenge for most artists, I guess, to be inspired by some giant, and then spend the rest of your life trying to get out from under his shadow.”

Walking into the museum, visitors will immediately be struck by one of Prentice’s most impressive stainless steel and aluminum pieces, “The Vine,” which commands the space at roughly 10 feet tall and 7 feet wide. Like his other pieces — typically made of bent, articulated wire and metal or plastic planes — it is highly sensitive to moving air. The work seems to be very fragile but is actually hardy, giving itself over to the air currents yet recovering to its original form. In this process, it reveals the pulsing and dynamic patterns of moving air.

“The basic idea is that wind is the ultimate artist and we just make something that allows the wind to be visible,” Prentice said, likening his artworks to toys for the wind to play with.

Another of Prentice’s pieces on view consists of two large circles, each about 7 feet in diameter, with one placed mid-air above the other. Made of reflective elements, the two spheres will wobble and move with the air to change shapes into ellipses or ovals while retaining their original form.

“Because there are two of them, the work is not only changing its shape in terms of an absolute circle, but in terms of how each of them behaves in that space, which won’t be the same thing, because one is about three feet over the other and it’s actually different air conditions,” Prentice said.

Interestingly, Prentice sculpts objects, but said he focuses more on the movement than the actual object. And like art in general, what one sees is up to the viewer.

Asked what he hopes audiences take away from the exhibition, Prentice chuckled at the question.

“It might be a smart-alecky thing to say, but I’d like five people to have six different interpretations,” he said.

For more information, visit thealdrich.org.

Andrea Valluzzo is a freelance writer.